They have strangled the humming bird,
and still in the twilight of the river,
her song flows.... H.E. Sayeh
“We are not afraid of economic sanctions or military intervention. What we are afraid of is Western universities and the training of our youth in the interest of West or East” - Ruhollah Khomeini
On Dec 7, 1953, three students in Tehran University were gunned down while protesting the visit of the then Vice President Nixon to Iran. Since then, 16 Azar (7 December) has been named Student Day in Iran and is commemorated each year, often with violence. Mohammad Ghandchi, Bozorgnia and Alavi were the students who were killed that day. They left their mark on the Iranian Student movement. Since 1963, Iran’s major universities have been bastions of intellectual opposition to both the regime of the Shah and to the Islamic Republic. Among Iran’s well known members of Revolutionary Organizations were some of Iran’s brightest university students. The list is long, including revolutionary leaders such as Masoud Rajavi, Bijan Jazani, Masoud and Majid Ahmad-Zadeh, Vida Hajebi, Amir Parviz Pouyan and Hamid Ashraf. All except Rajavi and Hajebi were executed or otherwise killed by the regime of the Shah.
Outside Iran, the world’s largest student organization in exile, the Confederation of Iranian Students (National Union), came into existence in April 1960, holding its first congress in Heidelberg, W. Germany. Later, the congress convened in Lausanne, Switzerland, called the Unity Congress with eventually formed branches in the U.S., Germany, France and England. The Confederation had chapters in most European capitals but also and major US cities and in Asia. Its tens of thousands of members and supporters were united in their struggle against the Shah’s dictatorship and for (widely divergent forms of) democracy for Iran. It represented many ideologies and ideas from pro-Soviet, pro-China to liberal- democrats, nationalists and Muslims, but all under one umbrella before it split it up into several factions. (See Dr.Afshin Matin’s comprehensive study titled, the Confederation of Iranian Students.)
The Confederation was instrumental in raising awareness among Iranian and foreign nationals regarding conditions in Iran under the Shah. Mr. Khanbaba Tehrani, one of its founding members, says the following: “The Confederation was united under one banner, against the coup [of 1953] and for freedom. It started as an umbrella front for different existing student organizations and it was based on cultural activities. We highlighted and celebrated Noruz and Merhregan but eventually it changed to a political organization and was radicalized. We even proposed the Sepah-e Behdasht (health care corps) and Sepah-e Danesh (education corps) to the regime, which was accepted. Later the Confederation was banned and membership in it was met with 3 years’ jail. What is different today vs. yesterday is that we opposed the Shah’s dictatorship. The student movement today is a reflection of the reformist movement in Iran and they do belong to the generation born after the Revolution.”
Shortly after the 1979 Revolution, having experienced relative freedom, the universities once again became epicenters of meetings and gatherings of tens of thousands of students, mainly on the campuses of Tehran and National (Melli) Universities. The Spring of Freedom was short- lived as the Islamic regime clamped down on the opposition targeting students in particular.
In 1980, Khomeini announced that all students should follow the islamization agenda. This appeal prompted opposition. In his study on the student movement, Dr. Ali Akbar Mahdi writes: “On March 21, 1980, Ayatollah Khomeini criticized universities for giving refuge to professors and students who were dependent on the East and West, and opposed the Islamization of universities. A week after his speech, the Technical University of Tehran was forced to close by the Islamic Student Association at that university. On April 18, 1980, after a Friday prayer speech against universities by the then Hojatoleslam Khamenei, Hezbollahi elements, shouting slogans, rallied toward three universities, the Polytechnic, Science and Technology, and Teacher Training. Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani [now a reformist] ordered the Pasdaran and forces of the Revolutionary Committees to enter universities.” Fights broke out, hundreds of students were injured and several were killed. Four days later, the Revolutionary Council ordered universities to close down for the next two years. “Ayatollah Khomeini argued that universities should not open until they were purged of un-Islamic elements and grounds were laid for an Islamic education.” (Ali Akbar Mahdi, The Student Movement in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Journal of Iranian Research and Analysis, November 1999).
The struggle of Iranian students never ceased to end and never gave in to various oppressive measures by the ruling elite. Tehran University as well as Amir Kabir, Allameh Tabatabai, Sharif Technical School(formerly Aryamehr) and even Azad Universities, and many others such as the ones in Isfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz and Mashad witnessed protests in various degrees and clashes between students and security forces of the Islamic Republic. Most notably, the University of Tehran and its dormitory (ku-ye daneshgah) became the scene of bloody confrontations with students. What came to be known as 18 Tir, July 9, 1999, marking a second era in the student movement against tyranny, this time took a different turn and became a protest against the ruling theocracy. The students’ private domains, their dormitories were ransacked by plainclothesmen and thugs. They were viciously beaten and arrested, even thrown from balconies. One was Ezzat Ebrahim -Nejad, who was murdered on that day. Shirin Ebadi, acting as the family’s attorney, said that the revolutionary court dismissed the case, because according to the ruling, "no people had officially been charged and Ezzat was dead anyway." Ezzat, who was also a poet, had come from Isfahan to study at Tehran University. The violent actions against the students that day were the first of their kind after many years. Initially, the peaceful protest began after the closing down of Salam, a reformist paper. Unfortunately, when Khatami came to the campus of Tehran University, instead of lending his moral support, he gave a sermon to the students who were utterly disappointed by his response. In contrast, when Abbas Amir Entezam, the longest held political prisoner of Iran and former deputy Prime Minister under Mehdi Bazargan, came to a meeting at Tehran University, students rose in his honor, clapping their hands for long minutes.
The late Akbar Mohammadi, a student in social work at Tehran University who died in Evin prison, wrote in his memoirs: “In the afternoon of 18 Tir, I saw with my own eyes that a few students who had taken refuge in the corner of an alley were confronted by security guards and the basijis. I witnessed a terrible tragedy in front of my eyes. We were standing at one side of the rails while they were on the other side. They were throwing stones at each other. Suddenly, a student who was next to me ran to the other side, I shouted, don’t go; please don’t go, but unfortunately he ran to the other side of the street, when 4-5 of the Ansar Hezbollah arrested him and began beating him. One of them said, please don’t kill him. When I heard the sound of a bullet I ran, I saw the student’s half live corpse; I hoped that I might rescue him. But the bullet had gone through his heart and there was very little hope. I carried him on my shoulders and went towards the crowd, when a few men stopped me and, despite my protest, took him, put him in their car, and took him to northern Amir Abad.” (Ideas and Lashes: The Prison Diary of Akbar Mohammadi, translated by F. Amini).
Ahmad Batebi, who became the symbol of 18 Tir, after his famous photo was taken and appeared on the cover of the Economist, says of that memorable and sad day, “I was a student in film studies and was on my way to give my final episode of the film, when the riots broke out. I was not a member of any organization but worked closely with two different organizations including Mr. Tabarzadi’s [Tabarzadi is currently in jail once again] group, the Islamic Union of Students and Alumni. We had a three-day vigil inside the compound after the vigilantes set fire and burned and ransacked cars after the 18th. I told the other students not to leave the campus as security forces were looking for an excuse to blame us for the disturbances but the crowd saw immense cruelty against the students and it was difficult to calm them down. I saw a student beside me being shot and that is when I took his bloodied shirt and pressed it against his wound and when I raised it, my photo was taken. I was caught in the moment. Later, when they came after me and arrested me, they used that against me. I was sentenced to death and after two years in prison, my sentence was commuted to 10 years.” In 2008, Ahmad Batebi was given a leave of absence for medical reasons, after enduring immense torture, losing one side of his hearing, and having had a stroke, and subsequently left Iran by way of Kurdistan with the help of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP).
Another student from Isfahan said of the conditions prevailing in campuses after 18 Tir: “These are guards or members of herasat who are in place at the gates and are usually connected to the Ministry of Intelligence. They have formed disciplinary Committees and created dossiers for student activists which could eventually lead to their expulsion or suspend them for one or more semesters. Remember, in such cases, when both the Ministry of Intelligence of the Islamic Republic and the special revolutionary courts are involved, students are not protected by university officials in any way.”
After the 18th of Tir incident, Iran’s University campuses, especially the ones in Tehran, were guarded 24 hours by members of Basij and security guards and herasat (a special watchdog group). No one could enter the U. campus without permission. I, myself, when visiting the campus of Tehran U. in 2005, had to confront one of the Basijis at one of the gates who did not give me permission to enter the campus though I went later through another gate and was able to interview two students. Understandably and being ultra cautious, the regime did not want any outsider to enter the grounds fearing that if they did not have a student badge, you could be a reporter or an element of influence on the students.
In 2002, Hashem Aqajari, a one-time Iran-Iraq veteran, with two amputated legs and a professor of history at Tarbiat Modarres College, gave a speech in Hamadan in which he criticized the regime and demanded reform in Islam. He was put on trial and sentenced to death for apostasy. On November 6, students organized massive protests against his arrest. Khamenei, fearing a repeat of 1999, threatened with bassij intervention. Subsequently, Mr. Agajari’s sentence was commuted to 8 years in exile in remote areas and he was banned for 10 years from teaching.
From the University campuses grew a number of student organizations, both Islamic, secular and left leaning. Most began addressing issues pertaining to the students’ basic demands such as food, conditions in classes, etc. but soon taking a political connotation asking for more freedom of expression, assembly and speech. The two main organizations that embraced the student body were Daftar Takhim-e Vahdat, (Office to Foster Unity or Unity Consolidation Office) Sazeman-e Advar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat (The Alumni Association of Iran, which is a political group made up of university graduates and undergraduate students with very close ties to the entire student movement), leftist student groups (loose groups not officially registered as organizations, whose members were arrested after the 2009 elections) Starred students (students who are given a star! and are banned from further studies and had contested their bans but who have been arrested in great numbers before and after the elections). Liberal students (again loose groups not officially registered as organizations- many of its members were arrested after elections) students from the provinces, including Tahkim-e Vahdat students and members of Advar in the provinces, from ethnic and religious minorities of Iran, especially the Kurdish area.
Since the first election of Ahmadi Nejad in 2005, things changed noticeably at the university scene. A student from the University of Isfahan, complaining of drastic measures taken by Ahmadi Nejad’s first administration told me, “even some of the conservative student leaders with Islamic tendencies who worked on Ahmadi Nejad’s campaign are scared of what would happen if a semi-military, right wing government takes over. These students are not necessarily happy with their decision or vote. This is even true about the professors who are considered right wing. Immediately after being elected as President, some of the positions were handed over to the most right wing and extreme elements that have no knowledge of their job, whose only credential is that they belong to the Sepah Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards). It is natural that with this kind of move, no one will support him. People are frightened of what could happen in the near future. It used to be a joke before that you could not make long term plans in Iran, not more than one day! But now it seems it is a reality. Look, in the last month, we have changed over 46 managers at the university! The only one that hasn't been replaced is the Abdarchi (the guy who takes care of the toilets). Now look at this in the broader picture. In this political climate, with all the financial burdens, most students who graduate don't have a future; no employment is in the works for them. Many just continue with their education because they cannot find a job if they graduate. Jobs that exist in the government are awarded through filtering or nepotism. This is a major issue which is of great concern to the students. They have become cynical, some have turned to drugs, and others are frustrated about tomorrow's prospect.” Young, Mature and Bold: Interview with an Iranian Student, Iranian.com, Dec 9, 2005).
Since Ahmadi Nejad’s rise to power in 2009 in a disputed (stolen) election, the university campuses have witnessed a second Cultural Revolution, reminiscent of an earlier one in June 1980 when more than 700 liberal and leftist minded professors and academics were purged. Students with any sort of liberal leniency were dismissed or had to bow to the Islamization of curriculum from humanities to economics. The first Cultural Revolution at the universities made a lasting and negative mark and the second one is quite similar. Ahmadi Nejad went as far as appointing a cleric to head the U. of Tehran, dismissing and arresting Professor Maleki. This prompted widespread campus protests. Previously he had appointed Saeid Mortazavi, the notorious Tehran prosecutor who is now under indictment for his role in the torture at Kahrizak detention center, as professor of Law! In recent years, many academics have had to leave their positions or seek employment in foreign universities, mainly in the Gulf region, as Ahmadi Nejad’s government chose to do away with open minded professors, replacing them with unprofessional and inexperienced individuals. These purges have had devastating effect on the entire academia in Iran. In recent times, many professors are questioned at length prior to participating in conferences outside of Iran. In addition, Khamenei, some months ago declared that students should not study liberal arts or humanities but sciences, reminding us of what Khomeini said in the early days of the Revolution.
One cannot forget how Ahmadi Nejad’s visit to the campus of Tehran U. was met with chants of “Down with the Dictator” and how his photos were burned. The bravery of Iran’s students has been phenomenal in light of the 2009 elections. Many come to mind, from Majid Tavakoli who gave a rousing speech in defense of freedom, wore the hejab in support of fellow women students and since then has been severely tortured (still in prison), to Abdollah Mo’meni, (who is presently in jail and has undergone unspeakable torture), to Bahareh Hedayat who has been given a 9 +year sentence and who has been nominated for the 2010 Student Peace Prize.
Abdollah Mo’meni, a student leader and spokesperson for Advar, who recently sent a most damning letter to the Vali Faqhi, writes of the torture he endured: “The iron fist of interrogators would also result in my passing out. On several occasions the interrogator in charge of my case strangled me to the point of me losing consciousness and falling to the ground. For days following these strangulations, I suffered such severe pain in the neck and throat area, that eating and drinking became unbearable.”
Amir Rashidi, a software engineering student and a member of Advar, who left Iran 8 months ago, was banned from studying. He talks of the events which led to the student arrests: “The ninth Majlis closed down parties and newspapers, and the last place of resistance that remained, universities, came under attack as well. Advar, which emerged from Tahkim, was doing good work. Both Advar and Tahkim had liberal/secular and Islamic tendencies but I would say that Advar is mostly secular. In my opinion, Tahkim faced problems because of internal issues. Advar has chapters in Isfahan, Urumieh, Kermanshah, Amol, Gilan and Ahvaz, a total of 16 cities. We were very much involved in the pre-election process. We formed Shahrvand Azad branch to inform people about the elections and the voting process. We told them, it is not enough to vote but you must stand by your vote and protect it. When they asked me, what should we do if there is fraud I told them that you must fight for your vote. We supported Karroubi in the elections, because we took our declaration and he agreed with every single demand. It is important to note that Karroubi met with us and supported us but Mousavi refused to even meet with us. He considered us personae non gratae. Karroubi even helped me personally when I was in prison. That is why one of our slogans was Hami daneshju, hemayatat mikonim (We support you [ Karroubi] because you supported us [students]. Today, all the members of the steering committee of Advar are in jail, Mr. Mo’meni, Dr. Zeid Abadi, Hassan Asadi Zeid Abadi, and Ali Malihi are in jail. Ninety percent of the time, we had political and educational demands. For example, we protested the idea of bumi-sazi jensiati, (gender domesticity), which in essence means that female students can not leave their towns to study and can only study certain subjects. This turned into a political demand. We also objected to the regime’s idea of bringing martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war and burying them at the university. We believed that a university is not a place for burial even for martyrs. The so-called President of the Republic is lying when he told the foreign media that people can even insult him without fear of persecution. The fact is that one of the charges against the students has been ‘insulting the President.” It is amazing that someone like Bahareh is given such a long sentence. Even by their standards she has done nothing illegal to deserve it. The fact is that even the students’ families are pressured as was the case with a sister of a friend of mine who was banned from studying because of her brother’s activities. Many times, students are kept from either studying or teaching if they don’t pray. My father was reproached for this by the authorities.”
A student from Tehran University whom I interviewed recently said: “Last year was a bad year for the students. According to government statistics, 70 percent of the students voted for rivals of Ahmadi Nejad. They had organized a campaign to assist voter. Two days after the elections the regime attacked the dormitories again and arrested many of the student campaigners. Many were barred from further education. In a desperate measure, the regime proposed to move the larger universities to smaller cities, but that proved impossible. The solidarity among students in the last year was not accidental. It was a reaction to government incompetence. Many students are not necessarily political. Before the elections, the clampdown on students resulted in a vacuum and activism was less visible but since the fraudulent elections which angered many students, activism is now widespread. This is also due to a more closed atmosphere, the lack of future prospects, the lack of social and cultural freedom, of prospects for marriage [this is an important issue among the youth as it is costly to get married. Gender issues are a big deal as free relationship is not permitted]. Most students are looking for change in their lifestyle. Most of the time, the regime intends to show that the students’ protest is politically motivated whereas we know that 60 percent of the student population in Iran are of the post revolution period. Economic issues play a major role. They want jobs, they want to form a family and have a future, they want to have a say in their basic everyday life. The regime is unable and unwilling to meet these basic demands.”
According to Nasser Mohajer, a Paris-based Iranian writer and researcher, “one can hardly compare the ongoing student movement in Iran with the one that existed during the last decade of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s reign. True, they both were anti-dictatorial, yet they opposed different things. Obviously the ´positions´ they were opposing were quite different. The student movement at that time was strongly anti-imperialist, Marxist oriented, Third Worldist, and somewhat populist. Today's student movement is ‘western oriented’, pro- democracy, strongly oriented towards individual freedoms and somewhat nationalistic. In retrospect, the student movement then was revolutionary and idealistic. Today we see a movement which leans towards rational action and real politics. Obviously, the international context in which they operate is quite different. One has to see the differences against this backdrop too.
Dr. Mehrdad Mashayekhi, professor of sociology at Georgetown University says the following: "Iranian students during our time were secular in nature, the idea of not being secular was not a question, but today secularism has been theorized and is part of the dialogue. In both eras we find the ideas of anti-tyranny but today we are also confronted with the rights of women, minorities and demand for basic civil rights among the majority of students."
Students who accept the status quo and who go on with the set curriculum will not necessarily face obstacles but as soon as they raise their voice in any sort of opposition or make demands, they are the first to be targeted. They are barred from studying, thrown in jail, given hefty bails, face torture, mistreatment, long prison terms and the threat of execution.
Life for students in Iran has not been easy, especially those who seek justice or demand more freedom. Yet some of Iran’s best and brightest come out of Iranian universities and are sought after by American universities. Many have had to leave their homeland to seek more freedom, opportunities or take refuge in exile from harassment and imprisonment.
Iran’s brave students continue to resist despite being targeted by IRI officials. They are once again holding the banner of the struggle for democracy, freedom, civil rights and the rule of law whether in prison or outside. May we see them back where they belong, the arena of higher learning, free from strangulation, both physically and figuratively. May we see them build a new Iran.
Part of Momeni’s letter to Khamenei
“Today I am in Evin prison, because I have been identified as someone who is critical of the Islamic Republic of Iran. As such, it is not irrelevant for me to recount my political views and activities over the last decade. I entered university in 1996 and in the same year joined the Islamic Student Organization and then was elected to Office to Foster Unity (Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat) and was a member of the Central Council and served as the Secretary of Tahkim until 2005 when I completed my Masters studies in Sociology at Allameh Tabatabaie University. From 2005 to the present I have served as a member of the Central Council of the Alumni Organization of University Students of the Islamic Republic (Sazeman-e Danesh Amookhtegan-e Iran-e Islami—Advar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat). I was the spokesperson for this legal organization, which works toward the advancement of democracy and human rights. During my time as a university student, my colleagues and I were most concerned with the independence of the institution of higher education from the centers of power and political parties and groups, as well as providing criticism of the state in an effort to support the people. My friends and I at the Office to Foster Unity believed that the mandate of the student movement was to facilitate the development of an environment where the historic demands for freedom of the people could be articulated and civil rights defended, despite one’s political and ideological beliefs and leanings. As such, we believed and continue to believe that the student movement should not sing the praises of the power structures and those in power, rather it must offer criticism of those who take advantage of their power, no matter what their background, and must defend the rights of the people, including women’s rights and the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. For this reason over the past decade, I have been targeted by those in power and security forces and as a result have experienced prison and solitary confinement on several occasions. Taking into account this arrest, I have spent nearly 200 days in solitary confinement.”
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